Committee (3rd Day)

Public Bodies Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 1st December 2010.

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Schedule 1 : Power to Abolish: Bodies and Offices

Amendment 19

Moved by Lord Greaves

19: Schedule 1, page 16, line 10, leave out "Agricultural dwelling-house advisory committees."

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:10 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, we resume our rapid canter through the Committee stage of the Bill. Amendment 19 refers to the,

"Agricultural dwelling-house advisory committees", in England and seeks to remove them from Schedule 1. I am not arguing that this is exactly what we should do. This is a probing amendment to establish who will carry out the important role of these committees in the relatively small number of cases involving agricultural tenants of tied housing, in which some 30 per cent of agricultural workers live. They are guaranteed security of tenure in their tied housing for fairly obvious reasons; their housing is tied to their job and their job is tied to their housing. That is a relatively unusual situation nowadays; it used to be a lot more common.

These committees were established under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 and are now established under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. They are convened locally and hear about 40 to 50 cases each year. Membership is drawn from membership panels that are maintained by the Defra offices in Crewe and Bristol and the meetings are set up on an ad hoc basis according to the business to be conducted. They are not terribly high-powered bodies in the sense of always being in session and always having a lot of business. They have a relatively small amount of business, but it is important. They consist of one member who represents agricultural worker interests and is nominated by the trade union Unite; one member who represents agricultural employer interests and is nominated by the National Farmers' Union; and one independent member who acts as chairman and is appointed from a panel of persons approved by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Agricultural workers living in tied cottages generally have security of tenure, but a farmer may apply to the local housing authority to have a protected worker rehoused if he or she needs the cottage for a replacement agricultural worker in the interests of efficient agriculture. In such circumstances the local housing authority, the farmer or the cottage occupier can ask an ADHAC to advise on the applicant's case to determine whether it is in the interests of efficient agriculture and urgent. In other words, although the committee can be asked to intervene by any of the parties to the dispute and to the attempt to evict the farm worker from his tied accommodation-in other words, the farm worker or the employer-in practice, the usefulness of these committees is to provide advice to the local housing authority, or the local council, on whether it is a reasonable request.

That is the nub of it. I am not arguing that ADHACs should continue in their present form. It may well be that the number of cases that are dealt with each year is relatively small, and that they could be dealt with in some other way. Some other body could be charged with advising the housing authority, and in this respect I am aware of the position when an application is made for planning permission for a house or cottage to be built in an area of the countryside where it would otherwise not be allowed because of planning rules on building new dwellings in open countryside, on greenbelts, or whatever. What tends to happen is that the planning authority, which is part of a unitary local authority or, in two-tier areas, the district, seeks advice on whether the accommodation is sensibly required from the appropriate department of the local authority responsible for farming and agriculture in the area. In two-tier areas that will be the county council, and in single-tier areas it is another department of the same authority.

There is a duty to advise a housing authority on whether it is a reasonable request to require the local authority to provide accommodation for someone who is otherwise in tied accommodation, so putting that duty on the relevant department of the local authority-whether it is another department of a unitary or the county council in a two-tier area-is a sensible way forward. It could provide the same safeguards and advice, which the housing authority will need anyway, within the wish of the Government to abolish this particular board organisation. There are sensible ways forward, but they require a bit of care and application by the Government not simply to abolish the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees without having first made appropriate arrangements for other bodies to do what they do because it is a very useful and necessary function. You only have to think of the situation in which you are in tied accommodation because you have been a worker on a particular farm, but you have retired, the farmer needs your house or cottage, you need to be rehoused, and the housing authority needs to have specialist advice as to whether it is a reasonable application to take precedence over all other applications for housing in that area. I hope that I can get an answer from the Government that is sympathetic to what I am putting forward. On that basis, I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour 5:15 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, I follow in the tone of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who moved this amendment in a very moderate way. He said "necessary" provision. The role of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees is very limited and focused. Nevertheless, it is critical to the individuals affected. Indeed, over the years the committees have helped greatly to facilitate on the one hand the evils of tied housing and on the other hand the needs of the farmer to get access to his tied house for his necessary employees. So there is a real difficulty there. We are talking about agricultural workers, but the tied cottage also applies to other related employees, such as gamekeepers and gardeners. I am conscious that tied-housing problems remain in urban areas, but the problem is probably not as great in those areas because there is more alternative accommodation in the form of affordable housing, council housing, and so on. In many rural areas the provision of affordable housing is quite low. So the demand is there. This may not be the vehicle to meet the demand, but we need to be reassured that the Government have thought this through and are certain that the new system that they need to put in place will meet the necessary requirement to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred.

I well remember the Labour Government's 1976 Act at that time, how it seemed to be a major step forward and how it increased the work of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees. Over the years the numbers have clearly fallen and the system seems to have worked, but the housing problem in rural areas is deteriorating. Increasingly, there is a demand for people to live in rural areas, a demand for second homes, and a demand for holiday homes as well. Often these are not only the modest cottages that one was used to in the past but increasingly ex-council houses as well. I see the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is here. He is aware that in parts of Cumbria many of these council houses are now used as holiday homes, so the reservoir of affordable housing is decreasing.

All Governments have recognised, in a different sense, that servicemen leaving the services should have priority in affordable housing. The decrease in the number of available houses for rent in rural areas plus the increasing demand for the remaining houses lead us to ask the Government whether they have thought this through. I can see their feeling, need and desire to get rid of the statutory bodies and understand it completely, but we must be convinced that the alternatives of the big society and localism, which the Government seem to espouse so much, will apply. I see nothing in the Bill or in what I have read to convince me that this has been thought through, but I remain to be convinced by the Minister later this afternoon.

Photo of Lord Newton of Braintree Lord Newton of Braintree Conservative

My Lords, I rather rashly intervene to express my general support for the thrust of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I declare an indirect interest as my wife is a member of the planning authority in the area in which we live-Braintree in Essex-and I know that some of these problems occasionally land up with that committee. I am not an expert, but I think what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about the need for some kind of expert advice in areas where the issue is whether there is an agricultural need was important. I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench can meet it.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, I agree with the general thrust of the approach by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I am certainly not arguing for the status quo, although this body has helped to solve a number of acute cases for individual retired farm workers, farmers who desperately need the accommodation to attract further labour and local authorities faced with the housing crunch to which my noble friend Lord Clark referred, so it has been a useful institution. The demand is diminishing, but it is important that we know what will replace this body.

I will make an additional point to the Minister because it goes to the heart of the way in which we are dealing with the Bill. In Schedule 1-and the same will apply to some extent to other Schedules-each body has a particular situation to deal with and the Government appear to envisage different consequences of the abolition of those bodies. It is important that this House knows what is in the Government's mind to replace what has hitherto been an important, if diminishing, function. It is important that we have this in writing, not simply as a reply in the debate. Some of us argued for a Select Committee procedure that would have allowed that to happen away from the Floor of the House, if necessary, and on a different basis of consideration. In this, as in so many other areas, we need to know the total picture. I make a plea to the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Taylor, that as we go through the stages of this Bill, and it looks as though it will be quite a lengthy process, they provide us with that kind of information so that we can have a more rational debate. I make the point on this institution because it is one about which I do not disagree with the Government, but we need to know in all cases what is intended to replace these bodies.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, I remember the 1976 Bill coming through Parliament. I was on the Benches that he is sitting on now. I thought it was a bad Bill then, and it has remained a bad Act, in particular with regard to ADHACs. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that this body is necessary. If it had been necessary, it would have been compulsory to have consulted an ADHAC. As it is, it is a purely voluntary agreement that an ADHAC can be used for consultation with the housing authority if necessary. The vast majority of cases are dealt with directly with the local housing association, so "necessary" was not the right word to use in this instance.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that there are 40 to 50 cases a year. I question that. My information is that the number is almost in single figures now. Sixteen ADHACs have some 10 cases a year in total. That means that half of them are not doing anything at all. It is high time we got rid of them, and I thoroughly support my noble friend in this. Could I just ask him whether, when we come to the follow-up legislation, he will propose to get rid of all 16 ADHACs at once, rather than one by one?

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in having tabled this amendment, which allowed this issue to be aired through this short debate. I know that he had some support from my noble friends who added their names to his amendment, which is symptomatic of a wider concern than if the amendment had simply been tabled in his own name. It shows concern that the issues that the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees have been dealing with are still important to address for the future in whatever way the Government are envisaging. We will be very interested to hear how the Minister responds to this debate.

It seems to me that the scale of the issue is quite important, despite what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has just said. As I understand it, 30 per cent of agricultural workers live in tied accommodation. Given that there are some 150,000 agricultural workers, we are talking about a considerable number of people who could avail themselves of this service. Obviously, there is some dispute about the figures; I am also aware of the figures cited by my noble friend showing that the advisory committees deal with about 40 to 50 cases each year. The noble Earl has given us different figures. Perhaps the Minister, in his reply, might like to give us the official Defra figures for this process.

Even if the figures are lower than I and my noble friends believe, that does not necessarily mean that all the committees should disappear. There might therefore be an argument for rationalising the structure. I do not know if this is something to which the Government have given consideration. If there are cases-sensitive cases, because they concern people's accommodation and whether they are going to be able to stay in their homes or be forced to move-being dealt with properly by the committees in a sensitive and efficient way, then it would be very unwise to simply disband the committees without having some very clear assurance as to how these matters will be dealt with in future. Perhaps the Minister can give us some figures showing whether the tempo of consultations and referrals to the committees has increased or decreased in recent years. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was quite right to stress, as the major point of his argument, the importance of how these issues are going to be dealt with in future and whether there will be people who know of the special circumstances of agriculture and the agricultural industry who will be able to deal with them.

Consultation is also important. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is in his place. Much to the House's pleasure, he gave it some assurances about the consultation process to which he was committed while taking forward the provisions in this Bill. It would be therefore interesting to know what consultation has taken place so far on this issue with those likely to be affected and those who are members of the committees at the moment, and to know whether they judge their work likely to decrease or increase. After all, there are quite a number of different and even specialised aspects to agricultural tenancies; for example, the different types of tenancy-protected, statutory or assured. We need to know that there will be people who understand how the system works and will be able to operate it in future. The point has also been made to me that when farm workers come up for retirement, but want to stay in their homes, that can be a difficult time. Therefore, we are entitled to ask who will represent and support farmers at that stage of their lives and in those circumstances.

The Minister and, no doubt, noble Lords around the House will have seen the recent Joseph Rowntree report about income standards and conditions in rural areas. It came out last week and makes a number of interesting points, not least that which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere when he talked about the lack of availability of affordable housing in rural areas, which makes the issues that we are looking at important. There are also planning difficulties. It was interesting to hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, to this debate.

I understand the costs of removing these committees to be in the order of £13,000, which is rather a modest sum. It is strange that on the previous group of amendments, which we considered the other day, many of us had the impression that the bonfire of quangos was largely about saving money and deficit reduction. Yet so far the amounts at which we have been looking have been very modest. Therefore, we are right to ask whether these modest reductions in costs will lead to something worth while. It has been somewhat puzzling to see how modest the costs have been in terms of the measures with which we have been dealing.

Finally, I should also like to ask about the situation regarding this area in the devolved territories. Certainly, on the Welsh Assembly Government's website there is still information about how to apply to agricultural dwelling house committees. It would be good to know from the Minister what consultations he has had with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations and whether they have raised some of the concerns about the way forward which have been raised today.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:30 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, in moving this amendment, my noble friend Lord Greaves said that this was his first amendment during what he described as a rapid canter through Committee on this Bill. I am not much of an equestrian, but "rapid" and "canter" are not the words that I would necessarily give to it at this stage. But I accept that my noble friend was merely putting forward a probing amendment. Therefore, I will try to set out why we think it is right that we are abolishing these committees.

As many noble Lords have said, ADHACs were set up under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, remembers the Act, as does my noble friend Lord Caithness. Sadly, I was not in the House, so I cannot go back quite that far. But I listened to both of them and they had rather different views. My noble friend made clear that ADHACs were set up to have an advisory role-I was very grateful he stressed that-in the rehousing of agricultural workers. To get on to the whole problem of accommodation in rural areas is stretching the point a bit too far. We are talking only about ADHACs and the advisory role that they had.

The purpose of the Act was to give those who lived in tied houses, such as agricultural workers, former workers and their successors, security of tenure and protection from eviction by their employer. Under the Act, a landlord can make an application to a local housing authority to rehouse a protected tenant on the grounds that the property is required for a new worker; that he is unable to provide suitable alternative accommodation for the existing tenant; and that the housing authority ought, in the interests of efficient agriculture, to provide suitable alternative accommodation. The landlord, the tenant or the local authority may refer such applications to the local ADHAC for advice on the agricultural need and the urgency of the application. However, there is no statutory requirement to consult an ADHAC. Again, I am grateful to my noble friend for stressing that point. Where advice is sought, the housing authority is currently obliged to take that advice into account when considering its housing priorities. But it is only a matter for the housing authority to take that advice into account.

Since the Rent (Agriculture) Act came into force, there have been significant changes to housing legislation, which have enabled farmers to let cottages to farm workers using an assured shorthold tenancy. As a result of these changes and changing employment practices within the farming industry, the use of ADHACs has fallen from what used to be something of the order of 500 cases per year in the 1980s to something fewer than 10 this year. To assist the noble Baroness with those figures, I can tell her that in 2007 there were nine cases, in 2008 there was a dramatic increase to 12, and in 2009 there were a further 12. So far we have had eight this year. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, put it, demand for this service is diminishing-and it is diminishing pretty fast.

In the light of this, the Government consider that, as the functions of the ADHACs are largely defunct, it is difficult to justify the retention of 17 different committees. Again, my noble friend referred to 16 different committees; I can assure him that there are 17 different committees covering England and Wales, with the associated administrative burden of recruitment and training of members. I appreciate that the cost is relatively low. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked whether it was just £13,000. That is the figure I have for the direct administrative costs, but there will be other costs to the department in terms of the secretariat needed for 17 different committees in England and Wales.

Furthermore, it should be made clear that the function can be, and indeed is, carried out equally effectively by the local housing authorities on their own account, as my noble friend Lord Greaves seems to suggest. Many local authorities already take decisions on rehousing without the advice of an ADHAC. I can assure the Committee that the abolition of ADHACs will not remove any of the protection afforded to agricultural workers and their successors in tied housing. The only change will be when a local authority receives an application for rehousing a worker in a tied cottage; the local authority will need to determine the agricultural need and urgency of the application on its own account, as it does now in the vast majority of cases. Again, I stress, we have had eight uses of ADHACs in this year. I imagine, as we are already into December, that figure is unlikely to increase by that much.

There is no intention to change the provisions in the 1976 Act which give security of tenure to protected tenants; tenants will not be disadvantaged by the proposed abolition of ADHACs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked about devolved Administrations-obviously in this case we are talking only about Wales, because this part covers only Wales. Yes, we will consult the Welsh Administration in the appropriate manner.

Finally, my noble friend Lord Caithness asked whether-or seemed to imply-we would need 17 different orders to abolish these. My understanding is that the power is such that there will be only one. I think that we-the noble Baroness as the opposition spokesman, and I as the Minister dealing with this in the Moses Room-will have to deal with only one rather than 17 different ones; I cannot remember whether the procedure is affirmative or negative. I hope with those reassurances my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to everybody for the constructive and consensual way in which the amendment has been discussed. The question of the number of individual cases per year has been raised. I am sorry if the figures I cited were rather larger than is actually the case. The figures came from what I took to be an official authoritative source on the internet, but perhaps that is a lesson for us all. I will go back and check that source, but that is clearly what it said.

A question of general interest was raised. I deliberately did not call the bodies "quangos", for the very reasons that noble Lords mentioned; that is, that their scale and cost are small. In many ways, they strike me more as part of the big society than as quangos, but perhaps I should not pursue that very far. Perhaps there are parts of the big society which have performed a useful function in the past and are now redundant.

The Minister responded to my use of the phrase "rapid canter". It is always a little dangerous to try to use irony in your Lordships' House, not least because Hansard has not yet got round to the use of smileys, which, as many of us know to our cost, are necessary if you are trying to say something ironic because a lot of people will otherwise read it absolutely flatly. I therefore make it quite clear that I was being absolutely ironic in talking about taking a rapid canter through the Bill, but-who knows?-it may be a rapid canter by the time we have finished.

I am very grateful for the Minister's assurances that the legal protection for people who have tied tenancies will not change in any way. On that basis, and on the basis that I think that we have had the kind of discussion that I would have hoped for to make the position absolutely clear, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 19 withdrawn.

Amendment 20

Moved by Lord Greaves

20: Schedule 1, page 16, line 11, leave out "Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales."

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is a much more substantive and important amendment-not that the last one was not important, but this one is much more so. I shall speak also to Amendment 21, which is grouped with and linked to it. Amendment 20 is about the agricultural wages board, whose purpose is to set the scale of agricultural minimum wages and related minimum terms and conditions of employment. It is an independent statutory body established by the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, and it goes back in its lineage as far as 1924, when there were far more agricultural labourers than there are now.

The question posed by the amendment is: are the functions of the AWB still needed, in whole or in part; and if they are still needed, in some way at least, is the best way to carry them out through the continued existence of the AWB or in some other way? There has been pressure for its abolition. The NFU has called for it, although not all farmers who employ agricultural workers would welcome that because it provides them with a clear framework of what they should be paying without having to negotiate. Its abolition was promised in the Conservative manifesto at the last election. It was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and was not in the coalition agreement. It is opposed by the relevant trade union, Unite. That information sets the amendment in its political context, but, as we know, the manifestos on which the last election were fought are probably redundant following the formation of the new coalition Government.

Liberal Democrat spokespersons, including my honourable friend Andrew George in the House of Commons, have expressed concern at the abolition and the potential removal of existing protections. The proposal to abolish the body was announced by the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, on 22 July, but it was done so, to the best of my knowledge, without any prior consultation. Any consultation would still have to take place.

The agricultural wages board consists of 21 people, comprising eight representatives of the employers, nominated by the NFU; eight representatives of the workers, nominated by Unite; and five independent members, including the chairman, appointed by the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly Government. I shall not speak much about the regional agricultural wages committees, which are the subject of the second amendment in the group, but they are linked to the AWB and basically set up by the same legislation.

What does the AWB do? It meets each year to make an Agricultural Wages (England and Wales) Order, which sets the agricultural minimum wage and other terms and conditions from 1 October each year. It may meet again to make amendments during the year.

The agricultural minimum wage must not be lower than the national minimum wage. There are currently six categories determined according to responsibilities and qualifications. It starts with grade 1, which is a few pence above the national minimum wage and is basically for unskilled, temporary and seasonal workers. At the moment it is £5.95 an hour, £232.05 a week. The other five grades are higher than that, as you might expect. Grade 2, for example, is the standard worker grade and it requires some minimum basic qualifications or certain responsibilities such as working with animals or driving a tractor, and that is £6.58 an hour. The grades progress to grade 5, the supervisory grade, at £8.23 an hour and grade 6, the highest, which is the farm management grade. The recipient of this grade may have responsibility for a whole farm and for employing and disciplining staff, so it is not a trivial job. The minimum rate for that is £8.88 an hour at the moment, £346.32 a week. These are not huge salaries and wages by any stretch of the imagination, but they do provide a guarantee for people working within the farm industry.

It is generally recognised that reform and modernisation are needed, and the board itself is keen to change the structure of the arrangements to a degree, and to change the consultation arrangements and procedures. For example, there is clearly a need now for the minimum wage in each category to be stated in annual, rather than in hourly or weekly amounts, and there is clearly a possibility that the whole system could be simplified and that some of the detail could be removed from it. But this still applies to 154,000 workers. It is not something trivial that can be discounted on the grounds that it is no longer needed because there is hardly anybody involved. There are far fewer than there used to be, but nevertheless, there are still 154,000 workers-that is 154,000 families. It is a lot of people.

What will happen if the agricultural wages board is abolished? Will there be a new national system set up? Will there be a bargaining system set up within the industry-an unofficial system, as it were-outside the purview of statutes and government, in which employers and representatives of agricultural workers negotiate? Or to what extent will it be left to individual farmers to negotiate with their own workers or just impose the terms and conditions and wages that they want to impose above the national minimum wage?

It has been said that the national minimum wage now makes the AWB unnecessary, but quite clearly that is an argument that would apply only to the very basic level of grade 1, which only applies to a minority-I think it is about 20 per cent of workers. The cost of the organisation is reported as £195,000, together with servicing costs from Defra itself of £77,000 which totals £272,000. This is not insignificant even nowadays, but again, it is not a huge figure.

Two questions arise. First, if it is abolished, in the absence of protection, what is to stop wages and terms and conditions of employment being squeezed, being forced down due to the pressure that we all know exists on farm gate prices, particularly from supermarkets and from food processors? At the moment, many farmers are adversely affected by market conditions and by their inability to match the monopoly powers of the people that they sell their produce to. However, they cannot compensate for that by reducing the wages that they pay below the AWB rates-the minimum agricultural wage rates. If they were able to do that, it seems highly likely that it would happen in a significant number of cases and wage rates would go down. Unite believes that if that happened, industrial action would be inevitable. I cannot comment on that and have no idea whether it is true. But I believe that if agricultural wages were to fall in the present circumstances, that in itself would be wrong.

The second question is: what is the best way forward? If savings can be made and the system can be streamlined to an extent, I do not think that any of us would disagree with that. I am certainly not going to go to the wall to defend the existence of a particular quango-and I think that this probably is a quango. The AWB as it stands may or may not be the best way of doing it. I am not asking the Government to stand and have an argument today and in future weeks over the existence of a particular body; I am asking them to look for a better way forward without prejudicing existing protection for what is still a relatively vulnerable group of workers. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 5:45 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, I support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I also declare an interest as a member and previous deputy general-secretary of what is now the union Unite, which, as has been said, is the union that organises agricultural workers.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said in moving this amendment that the agricultural wages council has been with us for a very long time. It came from the original trade board which was introduced at the very beginning of the previous century. When the Bill setting up that board and a number of other councils covering other areas of industry was introduced, it was supported by Members of Parliament from across all of the Benches. The thinking at the time-and this is why I and, I think, the union feel so strongly about this-was to encourage support for the wages councils, particularly the agricultural wages council, and the reasons behind that have not changed. The thinking was that there are certain areas of industry where it is enormously difficult to organise the workforce or protect it in a day-to-day way.

As noble Lords will know, aside from the agricultural wages boards, all other agricultural wages councils were abolished back in the 1980s. The agricultural wages council itself was retained because there was continuing recognition that this is a very difficult area in which to organise the workforce, and also because particular aspects of it need to be protected. The most particular aspect is that in many circumstances the relationship between the worker and the employer is very personal. The relationship often involves just one or two employees and one employer. It is a very close relationship where day-to-day friendship and trust has to be established. How, in those circumstances, can the employee raise for himself or herself the sorts of questions that need to be answered if that employee is to feel secure in his or her employment and endeavour to improve his or her circumstances?

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has already talked about the various grades available to agricultural workers. Moving along those grades depends on having had access to certain kinds of upskilling and training. How can a worker-knowing, quite often, that circumstances may be quite tricky on the farm; that they may be struggling in economic terms, or in terms of access to manpower-raise his or her own concerns and promote his or her own interests? It is very difficult. That is precisely why the agricultural wages board was retained when the other wages councils were abolished. I can see no reason why we should look at this now and say that things are any different.

I accept that life moves on, that nothing should be set in stone, that we have to look at arrangements that have been with us for many years and consider whether those arrangements are still appropriate. But nothing has changed in the day-to-day experience of those workers that would allow us to say that their protections should be lessened, loosened or removed in any way. The national minimum wage does not compensate and would not cover the circumstance which the agricultural wages council rules cover in terms of protecting that workforce.

With those few words, I support entirely the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

My Lords, may I add a few words as an agricultural employer with a couple of agricultural workers? I must say that the two workers I employ are never loath to come and argue with me about what their wages should be. On the question of the agricultural wages board and the rate set, I am speaking, of course-it may be a difficult adjustment-of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board and Scottish agricultural wages rates, with which I am familiar. I think one can almost say that practically no workers are paid the minimum that is laid down. It is used as a guide on which increments are added. That is true for full-time workers.

One area where the wages board is useful in our area is in dealing with younger workers, although, of course, everything is now tied back to the minimum wage. The minimum wage can serve as a guideline on what increases are useful or necessary in any given year. The other area-I do not know whether it exists so much in the English agricultural wages board-are the wonders, some of which no longer exist, which were called perks. What was the value of perks such as milk and potatoes? A wonder that still exists up in the north is that the provision of a house with hot and cold running water allows a deduction of £1 a week from the agricultural minimum wage.

Will my noble friend the Minister say whether these areas might need some guidance or a body to direct them? The final one, which is of interest in my area, is a shepherd's provision of dogs, which has a special rate for it.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 6:00 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his argument and agree with pretty much everything that he said. I caution the coalition Ministers that they will frequently find that propositions that have been put to successive Governments and their Ministers get dusted off and re-presented to new Ministers. Sometimes-I do not wish to impugn the noble Lord-Ministers are credulous enough to accept them, even though their predecessors have rightly looked at and rejected them. To my knowledge, the proposition of abolishing the agricultural wages board has continued for the past 40 years. It has come less from officials in MAFF or Defra than from pressure from the dead hand of the Treasury and the free labour marketeers in what is now BIS. That pressure is evident here. Certainly that pressure was put on Mrs Thatcher's Ministers, who rightly resisted it. It was put on John Major's Ministers, who also rightly resisted it. To my certain knowledge, every Secretary of State and junior Minister for Agriculture in the previous Administration was under such pressure and we rightly rejected it.

The noble Lord will say that things have changed. He has some justification because two things have changed slightly. First, for most of that period most farmers were in favour of maintaining the wages board. That is no longer entirely true. The upper echelons of the NFU have started voting with the workers rather than the farmers, who have taken a rather more jaundiced view of the wages board, even though it has meant a fairly balanced result for both sides in the long run. Many others, who are not necessarily in the top echelons of the NFU, are still favourably inclined towards the wages board because it saves small farmers a lot of work in trying to establish the appropriate rate for a skill and all the other terms and conditions. They would otherwise have to go through all that themselves. Indeed, some farmers' organisations are still in favour of the wages board. The Famers' Union of Wales, for example, is in favour of retaining it and opposes this proposition, as do the Welsh Government. We are talking about a body that covers England and Wales; there are devolution issues here. As far as I am aware, the proposition in Scotland is entirely separate. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, who I am sure is one of the more benevolent employers north of the border, will find that there are Scottish farmers who still wish to retain the process. It is not true to say that all farmers, as employers, are now opposed to the continuation of the board.

Secondly, although we now have the national minimum wage, it deals only with the absolute minimum, as my noble friend Lady Prosser pointed out. There are differences of only a few pence in that area. The whole structure of skill rates and different time rates and the whole issue of non-wage benefits, which were dealt with by the wages board, are not dealt with by having a minimum wage. The whole grading structure is in peril if this board is abolished.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, that is not to argue that the present structure could not be hugely simplified. Indeed, the previous Government looked at bringing forward a legislative reform order that would have reduced the number of committees, simplified the process and, to some degree, made the process for the agricultural minimum wage equivalent to that for the minimum wage. That was a sensible proposal, which would have had to follow the procedure of the Regulatory Reform Act. At the time, some noble Lords were concerned that the Act was moving towards the Henry VIII end of the spectrum. However, compared to this Bill, it was an absolute doddle for those who wished to preserve parliamentary privilege. It is probably more like a Henry III Bill in that Henry III had to compromise with Parliament. I believe that on some of these issues the Government will have to compromise with Parliament. The process that is being proposed in the Bill, as I have said several times, needs to be addressed.

The agricultural labour force of more than 150,000 in England and Wales-and others who use the wages board as an analogy to avoid engaging in separate bargaining with their employees or their unions-is still an important feature. I hope that the noble Lord can answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves: what will replace the board? Is there any role for the Low Pay Commission to look at aspects of this-at the particular rates and situations that apply to agriculture? Is there really any prospect of collective bargaining if it is not underwritten by the law? Under the legislative reform order that we contemplated, it would have been possible to have moved the agricultural wages board to a more bilateral structure but still with the legal underwriting. That would probably have been a sensible move. I was certainly in favour of it. We could have moved towards it.

If we leave this entirely to collective bargaining, as applies in other sectors, there is, as my noble friend Lady Prosser indicated, the difficulty of organising in this area. I do not have to declare an interest since I am not a member of Unite, although I have some family connections to it. These days I am a resident of Dorset, which is still a major focus of agricultural workers. There, the union's ability to organise is a little better than it was at the time of the Tolpuddle martyrs, but it is not easy. In so far as the wages and conditions of agricultural workers in Dorset have dramatically improved since those days, they owe a lot to the 100-year operation of the agricultural wages board, rather than the benevolence of employers or the state. It is unlikely that it will be easy to move to a normal situation of collective bargaining in this area.

Perhaps this is not so much a West Country issue. The people who are pressing most for this are horticultural employers, who have a very odd workforce structure. The work is hugely seasonal for obvious reasons. Much of the workforce is made up of migrants, many of whom are very vulnerable. Employers tend to try to pay the minimum rate, if not less. In the horticultural sector, a lot of the seasonal workers, many of whom have skills and qualifications in their own countries, will be pushed down to the minimum rate. The only legally binding rate will be the minimum wage. That, I can see, is desirable for the more ruthless employers in the horticultural sector. However, it is not the equivalent of a situation where you are a permanent employee in a major area of agriculture.

The other question is: who will now enforce the minimum wage in agriculture? It is difficult if we are talking about farms with two or three workers or farms where there are many seasonal workers who move on after a couple of weeks. The agricultural wages board had a rather minimal inspectorate attached to it, but who will now do its work? The Revenue imposes and enforces the minimum wage, but it is unlikely to tramp up and down every farm to find out how much every worker is paid. Enforcement is also an issue.

The question to those of us who oppose the dropping of the wages board is: why is agriculture so different from other areas that it requires a continuing minimum standing wage? The fact is that every other wages board was abolished. The wages councils were abolished in the 1980s and 1990s and the average wage in those sectors dropped significantly. If this is a blatant wage-cutting exercise, we should be told. If, however, it is more that we want to develop a skilled, effective and competitive workforce in agriculture, people must recognise that there are several difficulties in this sector beyond those that have already been referred to.

I shall mention some in particular. My noble friend Lady Prosser referred to the rather close relationship that agricultural workers inevitably have with their farmer employer, particularly on small and medium-sized farms where there are only two or three employees. That is fine while it is good. As soon as it breaks down, however, the power relationship between the employer and the individual farm worker is incredibly imbalanced and the worker is incredibly isolated-literally, in geographical terms-because there are no workmates in the same situation.

The other dimension is that the farmer himself or herself is under severe pressure, to a degree that many other small businesses are not. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made reference to the role of the food chain in pressuring farm costs, particularly in relation to the supermarkets. I am glad that this Government have decided that they will take up with slightly more enthusiasm than the last Government the proposition for an ombudsman who will look at the contractual relationships between the farming industry and other small providers of food and the grocery chain. I very much commend them for that. However, this is moving in the opposite direction. Within a week or two of the legally binding minimum wages disappearing from horticulture and agriculture, the buyer from the supermarkets will say, "You now do not need to pay the wages that you have previously paid. You can lower your costs and your price to us and provide a significantly lower rate". The cost benefit, therefore, of cutting wages does not go to the farmer. The employees will lose their living standards and the profit from the whole process will go up the chain to the big processors and supermarkets. If that is what the Government want, it is not in the interests of the agricultural sector. Indeed, it is a downward spiral in the agricultural sector and something that they have recognised needs to be counted in other respects.

Another nefarious dimension of the labour conditions in the agricultural labour market relates to the seasonal and migrant workers operating in many parts of agriculture but particularly in horticulture and in the larger-scale vegetable sector. I was grateful to hear on Second Reading the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, ask why the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was in this Bill at all. Speaking as the ex-Minister who brought in that piece of legislation, I am glad that she and others have recognised what a successful operation that is beginning to be. However, it is an uphill struggle because, in this sector, the conditions of the workers are open to the widest exploitation. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has to check on a number of things. It clearly has to check on health and safety at work and in housing. It checks on the employment and migration status, tax and national insurance of the workers-and rightly so. The abuses in all those areas tend to be cumulative.

Another area-one that is absolutely essential in triggering the Gangmasters Licensing Authority's interest-is whether the agricultural wages board provisions are being followed. If the legal basis for that disappears entirely, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority's ability to check whether appropriate wages and conditions are being paid by employers-many of whom will push their situation to the limits if they possibly can-is removed and a whole section of agricultural workers will lose one of their most important protections. These are just some reasons why agriculture, particularly the seasonal dimension of agriculture, drives us to think that a legal minimum ought to be retained.

I seriously ask the Government to reconsider this. I am not against the simplification of the wages board. I am not actually against the abolition of the wages committees. However, a basic minimum level of remuneration in agriculture would potentially avoid pretty substantial abuses, which I am sure that all parties in this House wish to avoid. I ask the Government to think again.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 6:15 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in so far as the Agricultural Wages Board has done a good job in the past, when it was badly needed. However, I cannot follow him in the rest of his arguments, except possibly his last statement, when he said that a legal minimum wage must be retained. Well, it will be retained, because there is the national minimum wage as the base floor. That solves the noble Lord's last point.

Besides the national minimum wage, there are the working time directives and regulations that have emanated from and will continue to come out of Europe, as we are increasingly bound in our employment laws by Europe. I firmly argue that the days of the Agricultural Wages Board are otiose. It can all but be done by the farmers with the current legislation in place, which gives the workers the security that they certainly did not have when this came in 1948.

Nobody has really mentioned Amendment 21 on the agricultural wages committees. Nobody has sought to defend those-not even the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. It is worth reminding the Committee of the hard work that these committees do. The only thing left to the agricultural wages committee is to appoint the members of the ADHACs. As we discussed in the last amendment, there are only eight applications for ADHACs, while there are 17 ADHACs. So a lot of people are wasting a huge amount of time and money. Perhaps it is the best thing that we get rid of them soon.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

I support the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I do so in the same tone and with the same approach. The real point of these amendments at this stage is to try to ascertain what the Government's real intentions are. What do they have in mind for the agricultural wages in the years ahead? This House has a high reputation because it is comprised of people who represent, often, the top of their professions-eminent people. As I look around and look across the House, I see so many people who know a great deal about this subject from the other side of the fence from the one that I occupy. I see a number of landowners from my native county of Cumbria. My only locus in speaking for this is that I started my working life under the Agricultural Wages Board and still remember when we used to glean The Westmorland Gazette-I think it was in October-for the advert that would tell us what our wage would be for the following year.

That was 50 years ago. I accept that times have moved on. However, as we heard from my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Whitty, there may still be a case for that certainty. My noble friend Lady Prosser made the point very clearly and graphically on the relationship between the small teams-often a farmer and his employee-that work on so many farms. It is difficult because they do work for a team; it is embarrassing and awkward for both sides. That has been the substance that has kept the Agricultural Wages Board going for the 62 years that it has been in existence. There may be a case for that certainty to continue.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, quite rightly made the point that 154,000 individuals are covered by the Agricultural Wages Board. However, it is much more significant than that, because the Agricultural Wages Board provides the yardstick and benchmark for many other workers in rural areas. While they might not be encompassed by the Agricultural Wages Board, they are influenced, and their wages determined indirectly by it. Again, we are talking about a great many people.

In the spirit of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I must say that one thing that has disappointed me most about the Agricultural Wages Board in committee issues has been the lack of consultation. I was amazed to read a letter from Mr Jim Paice, who I know well and respect a great deal. He is a thoughtful and considerate man. In a letter dated 8 September 2010, which was circulated to the members of the Cumbria, Northumbria and Tyne and Wear AWC, he responds to comments about a lack of consultation. The letter states that,

"we do not consider it would be productive to have a consultation on the proposals, although individuals will be welcome to continue to submit their views to Defra".

That is not written in the same spirit in which Ministers have advanced their case in this House. I ask them to think a little more about this. With more consultation we are more likely to get a better result and a better conclusion. I hope that that negativity will disappear. As I say, I am very surprised that Mr Jim Paice wrote such a letter.

I stress the other main point that has been raised-that the Government argue that there is no longer a need for an Agricultural Wages Board as agricultural workers are protected by the national minimum wage. Of course they are; every worker in this country should be protected by the national minimum wage. However, as has been said repeatedly, that applies only to the basic agricultural wage, which currently is one penny an hour greater than the national minimum wage, so the amount is not great. However, modern agriculture is a highly technical industry involving a great deal of skill and often a great deal of expertise. That is recognised by the agricultural industry and is certainly recognised by the Agricultural Wages Board. While it is true that the national minimum wage would protect a worker on the basic rate, what about the five higher grades? What protection would people on those grades have? Mr Jim Paice states in the letter that,

"on the abolition of AWB, the six different grades of worker will not be retained, as agricultural workers will be covered by the national minimum wage rate, as for all other workers. It will be for individual workers and employers to agree different rates while taking into account experience and qualifications alongside the needs of the business and individual circumstances. Agricultural workers will continue to be protected in the absence of the AWB by bringing them into the framework of the National Minimum Wage".

Again, I am worried by the tone of the letter. If I am right in my submission that the agricultural industry is a modern, highly technical industry, we need to encourage and reward skills. However, I submit that if we leave this matter to individual negotiations, bearing in mind the points raised by my noble friend Lady Prosser, there will be an erosion of skills in the agricultural industry.

I will not go on for much longer but I am probing the Minister to try to ascertain how the Government foresee the future for agricultural workers and related workers in forestry and other land-based industries. There may be a case for rationalisation but I seek reassurance that the Government have thought this through.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate on these amendments, to which my name is attached. I will not detain the Committee for long. I declare an interest in that 10 of the happiest years of my life were spent working for Farmers Weekly, during which time I gained a lot of experience of the work of the Agricultural Wages Board. I was provoked to intervene in this debate by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. There is a profound misunderstanding that the national minimum wage can take care of the proper pay rates for agricultural workers. As my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has said, there are six grades of pay. As he pointed out, if it is to be left to those on the five grades above the minimum rate to negotiate with the farmer who employs them, it is not beyond the wit of man to imagine that some farm workers will face pay cuts. This must be the logic of it. The noble Earl shakes his head. If I have this wrong, I will gladly sit down and he can put me right on it, but the minimum wage says what it does on the tin: it sets a minimum wage, but takes no account of the grades above that. As my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has also said, those grades are there for a purpose. They are accepted by the employers, farmers, who recognise that increased productivity and the higher levels of skills that are needed must be rewarded, which means that there must be different grades for different levels of skills.

Most farm workers-they are a dwindling number-work in groups of two, three and four, working closely with their employer, the farmer. It is only when you get into the poultry packing plants and the vegetable processing plants that you can measure workforces in the dozens and the hundreds, but that is a very different atmosphere in which to negotiate. Are the Government really suggesting that a father and his two sons, who make up the workforce on a mixed farm, will make an appointment with their employer, the farmer, to talk about rates of pay? This is not the real world because there is no equality there. In my submission, the Agricultural Wages Board was put in place in the interests of farmers and the industry as much as in the interests of farm workers because it levelled the playing field. The industry got great value out of the Agricultural Wages Board. The other day I was astounded to hear a former president of the National Famers' Union, with whom I spent many a happy hour in the old days when I worked for Farmers Weekly, rely on exactly the same argument. He said, "No, Robin, it does not matter because the national minimum wage is there". I take it that the official view of the National Farmers' Union is that it now wants to see the destruction of the Agricultural Wages Board. I say simply that it will live to regret that because it could result in immense chaos, let alone unfairness, for the industry. A very heavy price will be paid if the board is abolished.

The last report of the Agricultural Wages Board that I could find in the Library was for 2007-08. It makes the point that the board does not deal just with wages. There have been demands from the workers' side for an all-industry pension scheme. How will that be dealt with now? What are the unions supposed to do now? To whom do they write? Will they write to the president of the National Farmers' Union of England, the president of the National Farmers' Union of Wales and the Farmers' Union of Wales and the NFU in Scotland? Is this the way that they are meant to proceed? Given the row about tithe cottages, who decides the value of the accommodation provided under the contract of employment to employees who live on the farm as part of their job? The national minimum wage will not take care of that. Who will take care of that? Will this be negotiated farm by farm across the length and breadth of England and Wales? This is a ridiculous way to engage in human relations and will cause immense resentment. I do not believe farmers are bad employers but they are not overgenerous with their money. As the last report of the Agricultural Wages Board notes, this is traditionally a low-pay industry, which is why the Agricultural Wages Board was established.

The Agricultural Wages Board does other things. For example, it has a helpline. Why does it need one? In 2002-03, 4,477 farm workers phoned the helpline because they felt they were not being paid the proper rate of pay; that rose in 2007-08 to 5,006. Who is going to deal with those complaints? Now if I say to my employer, the farmer, "Listen, George, I should be on this rate. This is what you should be paying now, it is what we agreed, and I am not getting it." Presumably George is going to turn round and say that the world has changed and we have the national minimum wage now. The Agricultural Wages Board was given the same powers as the national minimum wage authority to ensure that the minimum scales of pay were met. These six pay scales are legally enforceable. That is going to disappear. This is a recipe for unfairness and for chaos, and I regret very much indeed that the National Farmers' Union has put its signature to what the Government are proposing.

I hope the Government will seriously think again about this proposal. The total budget of the board is £481,000 a year to bring some sense and fairness into this industry. If the Government are committed to doing away with the Agricultural Wages Board, I hope they will try to persuade employers to establish a forum where these matters can be discussed sensibly between all those who work in the industry, employers and workers, to avoid the chaos and unfairness that is bound to happen unless that is done.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 6:30 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and as an employer of staff in the West Country-not the county of Dorset, like the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, but next door in the county of Somerset. I had not really intended to get involved in this debate-I thought I would just let it wash on and see what came out-but I think that I should report to your Lordships from the real world of Somerset. If I was to reduce the wages paid on my farm down to the levels set by the Agricultural Wages Board, not the basic wage but the various craftsmen rates, I am fairly certain I would have a strike on my hands.

I rarely pay much attention to the Agricultural Wages Board or what it says. I can see that a guide on an annual percentage rise within the agricultural world is often quite useful. However, I dare say that in the absence of the Agricultural Wages Board there will be other means of arriving at such a benchmark system, and I am sure that the NFU and others will get together and provide us with one, if that is going to be needed.

Photo of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Labour

I, too, wish to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the remarks made by several of my colleagues on these Benches. If this board was abolished in this rather casual way, without any suggestion of what should replace it, it would be regarded by writers in the future as a rather cruel joke, in view of the difficulty this area of the workforce has had to obtain normal collective bargaining resources. Now, fortunately, many workers belong to the union, UNITE, but there was a day when workers who wished to form trade unions in this vulnerable sector of the workforce were met by a very different response by their society.

This particular history does not die in the memories of those who are literate regarding trade union organisation. It is very surprising that the Government come forward with no suggestion of anything to replace this-one of the boards or councils set up in the early parts of this century to protect vulnerable sectors of the workforce that did not have the advantage of even the elements of collective bargaining. The existence of a minimum wage to cover the entire workforce is no argument at all. The Agricultural Wages Board can, and does, make very sensitive interventions, as my colleagues on these Benches have illustrated, with the modernisation of agriculture.

I very much hope that in reply the Minister does not resist the amendment-certainly not without any suggestion of what the Government foresee as the structure and protection of this area of the workforce. A raft of structures has been attached to the Agricultural Wages Board, such as the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees, as we have already discussed. I very much hope that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will be supported by this House in the interests not merely of labourers in agriculture but also of employers in the agricultural sector, who, as we have heard, also have an interest in the protection afforded by the Agricultural Wages Board.

Photo of Lord Morris of Handsworth Lord Morris of Handsworth Labour

My Lords, I too support the amendment. I apologise for not being here at the very start of the debate; I was detained elsewhere in the House.

Let me declare an interest-for 12 years I had the great privilege of leading the union to which agricultural workers belong and which represented them. I was general secretary at the T&G, and I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, who was my deputy general secretary. Part of our joint and collective responsibility was to pay a special interest to the work of our agricultural membership. We did that because in many instances they had a diffuse working environment, away from the collectiveness of the workplace found in factories, warehouses and even supermarkets. I am sure that the noble Baroness would have made some of the points I might make now, and for that I apologise again.

The noble Baroness and I campaigned, along with the rest of the trade union movement, to have a national minimum wage introduced because it gave certain standards. It also sent a very clear message about how workers should be treated and what sort of economy we want to build in the United Kingdom. If I thought for one minute that the agricultural wages board could have done the job that the national minimum wage is intended to do, we would not have bothered. We are talking about two separate and distinct bodies, with separate and distinct functions. The agricultural wages board is a joint industry body-it represents agricultural workers, sitting face to face with employers, and of course has an element of independence as well. It looks after the interests of young people, it is concerned about safety and it has a duty and responsibility that goes far beyond anything that the Low Pay Commission ever does.

The Low Pay Commission was set up by the Government of the day to deal exclusively with pay-nothing else and nothing more. Therefore, any consideration of abolishing the agricultural wages board, in the vain hope that the tasks, duties, responsibilities and obligations that it performs will be transferred to the Low Pay Commission, displays a level of ignorance which is quite threatening and worrying. The two bodies are different and they carry out different functions.

In fact, the agricultural wages board was preceded by a body called the Fair Wage Resolution. Every so often a resolution would be passed to renew the principles of fair wages-nothing else but wages. However, it failed. Accidents were part and parcel of daily experience. Young children were going into grain silos with some horrific consequences. It was recognised that there needed to be an authoritative body which was not a trading body and not an employers' body, but a body for the industry which recognised and promoted the interests of the industry.

When my union goes to Brussels and meets agricultural workers, we do not say, "What is the rate of pay in other parts of the European Union?"; we do not say, "What is now being looked at for holidays?"; but we talk about the issues of the industry. The agricultural wages board is an advocate for the international industry; the Low Pay Commission is no such thing. It would not just be a backward step but a tragedy for British agriculture to have no voice which represented both sides of the industry and which could speak with an element of independence, nationally and internationally. Therefore, I genuinely ask the Committee and the Government to think again because they will be sending the wrong signals and putting a lot of people in a lot of danger. They are making a tragic mistake. I hope that they pull back from this.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Liberal Democrat

I declare an interest as the owner of a small farm in the north of Scotland, the circumstances of which are very different from the farms mentioned by other owners.

This has been a very important debate, stimulated by my noble friend's amendment. There has been a remarkable chasm of opinion between those who view the winding up of the agricultural wages board with concern and those who are either indifferent or supportive. The National Farmers' Union apparently has made its position clear. The one interest which has not been expressed in this debate so far from the point of view of an objective economist is: what will be the impact on rural development of a depression in farm workers' wages? That seems to be the natural consequence of the removal of this body, at least at the lower end of the scales.

I recognise that in some prosperous parts of the country, agriculture has to compete for skilled activity from people who could find alternative employment relatively easily in the area. Large parts of the south-west may be a good exemplification of that, but in the more sparsely populated areas there is not a superfluity of employment. There are not many alternative jobs available and it seems to me that a consequence of depression in income of those working on farms, whether at the top of the local scale or near the bottom, is likely to result in a further flight from the land. That has to be of concern. I cannot speak with the authority of a rural or agricultural economist, but I very much hope that the Government, in considering this proposition, have taken those considerations into account. If there is any evidence that can be revealed, I hope they will reveal it this afternoon or at a later stage of the Bill.

It seems to me that we are entering a process with great rapidity and perhaps with too little prior consideration of the consequences. We have all spoken from local experience, from personal experience and from different angles of vision, but those matters need to be drawn together if we are looking at a body which has existed since 1948 and which had forerunners going back to the early part of the 20th century. We need to look at this not just in a debate which has lasted for one hour and five minutes, but rather more deliberately. It is not entirely reassuring that the process of the Bill would allow another one and a half hours of debate on an affirmative resolution to decide this ultimately.

We need considerably more evidence about the impact on those parts of the country where income is low and the population is sparse but which play some part in meeting the nation's needs for agricultural production. We do not want to see the land deserted or visited purely for recreational purposes. I hope that we can get some more solid, factual information before the House is asked to reach a conclusion.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative 6:45 pm, 1st December 2010

Perhaps I might intervene again. Having listened to the various speeches around the House and particularly to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, giving the story of the very essential and important work that the agricultural wages board has done over the years, we need to consider how things have moved on. One element which is very different now is that all employers and all jobs are subject to the Health and Safety Executive. All accidents must be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, so that deals with one element which perhaps the agricultural wages board used to look into.

The other point, which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, spoke about, is the difficulty in the grading of agricultural workers. One big difference now is that, in the nature of things, agricultural workers acquire certificates and they come with a grading of their own. If someone applies to you for a job, he can produce certificates of his skills and certain elements. In my part of the world, I do not see a danger of reduced wages because there is a shortage of skilled men and they are now, more or less, in a position to name their price.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

My Lords, I reinforce the argument made by my noble friend. I drove a tractor some time ago-1943, I think it was. Whether I was underage I will leave the House to decide. I remember that we were very happy if we got 30 hundredweights an acre. We stooped it, then it was put in a stack, and it was then thrashed by a threshing machine that came around at about this time of the year.

Today, you have a computer-controlled combine harvester that does the whole thing on its own. It is about two and a half times the width of the old cutters that we used to have. I will gamble that there are very few farmers that own one of those combines. There are some in Norfolk, in the grain area of the east of England, but in my part of England-in north Yorkshire-none of the farmers owns their own combine harvester. The contractors own it-and they do the potatoes as well. There are no labourers left in north Yorkshire in agriculture. No such person exists any longer. If there is not a skill, then you cannot employ anybody in agriculture in north Yorkshire-I am not sure about north Scotland.

I contend that-never mind the £8-something-you will not get that combine driven by anyone paid anything less than £10 an hour. The statistics that I would like to understand are the actual wages in agriculture today, because-believe you me-they do not bear much relationship either to the minimum wage or to the wages that were set on 1 October by the board which we are discussing.

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I, too, support strongly the amendment and pay tribute to the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, introduced this debate. It has been an interesting and powerful debate, and noble Lords from around the House have certainly brought their experience to bear on this issue. We even had the personal experience of my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere, who, at an earlier stage in his career, was affected by the decisions of the agricultural wages board.

We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the board, in one form or another, was established a long time ago-in 1924-and has been a tried and tested institution. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, also referred, as I think did the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, to industrial action. Happily there has not been industrial action in the agricultural industry since 1923-significantly, the year immediately before the establishment of the board. However, I support the agricultural wages board not simply because it has been here for a long time. The Minister misquoted me in our last debate when he said that I had said at some point,

"that everything should continue as it is just because it always has existed in the past".-[Hansard, 29/11/10; col. 1360.]

I can assure him that I have never said anything remotely like that, and I am very often persuaded of the need for all kinds of change. I hope, after what has been said today, particularly by my noble friends and by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the Government will think again about the decision to abolish the agricultural wages board. I think they should reconsider it very seriously indeed in the light of this discussion.

A number of noble Lords mentioned consultation, and there certainly has been next to no consultation on this decision. The Minister, in answer to a Written Question from me, said:

"No specific consultation was undertaken prior to the decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board".-[Hansard, 26/10/10; col. WA 245.]

It is my understanding that the Welsh Assembly Government criticised their notification of this as being totally inadequate; they were given one week to respond. Indeed, in an answer to a Question from the former Defra Secretary of State in the other place, Hilary Benn, again the lack of consultation was clearly evident. Given that the agricultural wages board has been a very long-standing feature of our economic and agricultural landscape, to have no consultation is very serious indeed.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Liberal Democrat

Would the noble Baroness agree that the debate has been forceful in indicating that consultation would be advisable and helpful, and that perhaps it would be sensible not to reach a conclusion on this matter in this debate, because evidently there is still a great deal of time left to consider the Bill?

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The noble Lord makes an important point. Obviously, how we proceed is up to the author and introducer of the amendment to decide. None the less, given the number of questions that have been raised in this debate on all sides, and given the fact that there has been a very strong feeling in the Chamber that this is an issue about which there should be proper consultation, I am inclined to support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his comments. I am sure that, in the light of whatever response we get from the Government, we would very much want to return to this in any case, because it is obviously of great concern and interest to many Members in this House and, of course, to many people outside.

The issue of cost has once again been referred to. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his introductory comments, said that the cost of abolishing the board was very limited. In answer to a Parliamentary Question in the other place by Willie Bain, I understand that the Government said that the costs would be "negligible"; indeed that the,

"changes to include agricultural workers within the scope of national minimum wage legislation", were,

"expected to be cost neutral".-[Hansard, Commons, 25/10/10; col. 14W]

Therefore this has not been brought forward to save a great deal of money, again like some of the measures that we were considering earlier. In many ways it seems to be part of a political agenda-a political decision-which I must say I very much regret. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, himself said that the abolition of the agricultural wages board was part of the Conservative manifesto but was certainly not part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It was not part of the coalition agreement, and for that reason I think that it would be very good if it were not part of government policy here and now. I know, having looked at the Liberal Democrat Voice on the internet, that there is a concern generally about the Bill among Liberal Democrats, but also about some of the specific proposals, including this one.

I know that some farmers have come out very much in favour of abolition of the agricultural wages board, including the NFU in England. It is interesting, however, that the National Farmers' Union in Wales has come out more in support of the retention of the agricultural wages board. Indeed, it and some other farmers have made the very important point that the agricultural wages board actually lifts from individual farmers the burden of negotiation. Quite understandably, this debate has focused on the effects of abolition on agricultural workers, but there is also a negative effect on many farmers who find the operation of the agricultural wages board helpful and valuable in terms of the recruitment and retention of skilled labour. The Government have said in the past, in debates in this House, that they value professionalism in agriculture; yet I fear that, by going down this route, we will undermine agriculture and show it as a low-paid profession where there is not proper protection for workers. We already know that agriculture is a dangerous industry in terms of accidents. We need to tackle that issue, which I think the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, referred to. At the same time we want agriculture to be seen as an industry which is attractive for new employees in the future.

It would be good to hear from the Minister about discussions he has had with individual farmers, and in particular some of the farms in different areas in England which might have a similar farming structure to those in Wales. Many noble Lords have referred to what will happen when the agricultural wages board disappears, if it does, and indeed, how much importance we should attach to the fact that such workers would still be covered by the national minimum wage regulations. It is true that level 1 of the agricultural wages board structure is only 2p an hour more than the national minimum wage but, as my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale and others have pointed out, we have other levels of remuneration in agriculture. I understand that only 20 per cent of workers are on grade 1, so 80 per cent would lose substantial protection with the abolition of the agricultural wages board.

The whole issue of the agricultural wages board goes much further than the national minimum wage, as my noble friend Lord Morris of Handsworth said, as indeed did my noble friend Lord Whitty earlier in the debate. The national minimum wage provisions do not cover entitlements, many of which are currently covered by the Agricultural Wages Order, such as specific rates of pay for overtime, standby duty and night allowance, entitlement to bereavement leave, and birth and adoption grant. The agricultural wages board has responsibility for a large number of issues, on which it makes various rulings. The board also makes specific ruling for apprentices under the age of 19 during their first year of apprenticeship and considers the position of students on work placements of less than a year. It is important for the Government to address all those issues in giving us some assurance in how they see the way forward in this important area of policy. What safeguards will they put in place to guarantee the provisions that fall outside the national minimum wage regulations?

I listened to what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said. It is true that there is a framework of regulations and employment provisions in place, including the national minimum wage, the working time directive and various social measures from Europe to which he referred, but that does not give me great encouragement. At least the Conservative part of the coalition strongly opposed those measures in the past, and I am worried that this decision may be part of a wider pattern and attitude towards wage and employment conditions that we will regret.

So far there has been a deafening silence on what would replace the agricultural wages board, and I very much share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, when he referred to that. The board exists for a good reason. Indeed, my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Morris referred to this. There was a special reason why the agricultural wages board was retained when the other wages councils were abolished. It is very much to do with the fact that the industry involves individuals negotiating with an individual employer. It is not a matter of dealing with a large firm with a large number of employees who may be well organised to negotiate. There are issues relating to agriculture that are unique and which were recognised before, when the decision was made to retain the board. With regard to other councils being abolished, in many ways the precedents are not good because many wage rates in those sectors fell as a result of abolition.

My noble friend Lord Whitty mentioned that the horticultural sector was particularly supportive of the abolition of the agricultural wages board and I am aware of some of the reasons, having had contact with representatives of the horticultural industry. Their concern arises very much from the pressure from supermarkets and the weakness they feel in their negotiations with them. I suggest that the best way of approaching that is to bring in the supermarket ombudsman and use the other measures that have been put forward to strengthen the agricultural industry's negotiating position with supermarkets. That would be much better than abolishing the agricultural wages board in the way proposed by the Government. In many ways, given some of the issues that have been raised in the agricultural sector by noble Lords today and from outside, it could be said that there is a case for strengthening or even extending the remit of the agricultural wages board rather than abolishing it.

I also want to ask the Minister about relations with devolved institutions. I understand that the intention is to cover England and Wales. Is the agreement of the Welsh Assembly Government necessary to bring about the abolition of the structure in Wales? Given the concerns expressed by both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh National Farmers' Union, it is an important point that we need to know. In a Written Answer in the other place, the Government said that legislation in the Welsh Assembly would not be necessary, so does that mean that the Government can simply abolish the board without reference to views in Wales on the desirability of its continuation?

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, mentioned Scotland. I understand that there are no plans to get rid of its agricultural wages board and, indeed, agricultural wages were revised by the board in Scotland just last month. Therefore, there seems to be a commitment to the agricultural wages board in Scotland. It would be good to see England in the lead in some of these issues, rather than falling behind in our support of employees with a good level of wages and a good degree of protection in working conditions.

This House has been repeatedly concerned about the economic well-being of our rural areas. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, not very long ago introduced a debate on the uplands and his concern about living and working conditions there. The report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which I mentioned earlier makes important reading for Ministers as well as Members of this House. Certainly, that report refers to some of the higher costs of living in rural areas and the question of housing, which we dealt with earlier when discussing the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees. The foundation said that single working-age adults needed to earn £2,000 or £3,000 a year more than those in urban areas simply to have the same standard of living. That is a reflection of the higher domestic fuel costs in the countryside and problems of access to transport in many rural areas. The findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation seem to suggest that it is important to retain mechanisms that support levels of income in the countryside and not undermine them until some of the wider issues have been addressed.

In conclusion, I feel that this decision is a highly regrettable one if the Government decide to go ahead. It is not being done on grounds of cost but for political reasons. It is unjust, it is unfair, it does not make economic sense and it does not serve agriculture well. I hope that the Minister, in replying, will change tack and respond positively to the powerful concerns which have been expressed so well in this debate.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:00 pm, 1st December 2010

My Lords, I will start, as is proper, by offering an apology to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for possibly misquoting her, as she alleged earlier in her somewhat lengthy speech. I am not sure whether I did, but I will look at the record and, if I have misquoted her, I will offer my sincere apologies for so doing. If I can quote her again, I noted that she made the point towards the end of her speech that there was possibly a case for strengthening the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I think that the noble Baroness accepts my quotation. I note that as a new commitment by the party opposite from its Front Bench.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, listened to his noble friend's speech with great attention and I was grateful for his admission that the Government of which he was part had considered the abolition of the agricultural wages board. They decided not to for reasons that I cannot speculate on, but the range of speakers who come from the other side might give some indication as to why they changed their mind on the issue. We have examined the issue again and we have decided to go ahead with abolition. I will try to set out just why we wish to do that.

When the wages board and the committees were established in 1948-in fact, they were established earlier than that, but the parent Act is the 1948 one-farm workers had very little protection available to them from exploitation. The close working relationship between workers and employers, where the former were often dependent on the latter for housing, meant that workers were often at a disadvantage in negotiations on wages. In these circumstances, it was sensible to provide an independent statutory forum where farm workers and employers could come together to agree pay and conditions. Since that time, we have seen tremendous changes in wider employment legislation, both nationally and, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, at an EU level, which protects and benefits workers in all sectors of the economy, including farm workers. Those changes include the introduction of legislation on the national minimum wage, which has been referred to. That makes it illegal to pay a worker below the current national minimum wage. There are also the working time regulations referred to by others, which, among other provisions, set a statutory minimum entitlement to a minimum wage.

For these reasons and all the changes that we have seen since 1924 and 1948, the agricultural minimum wage framework set out in that 1948 Act is, we believe, anachronistic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and the noble Lord, Lord Clark, put it, in more or less the same words, life moves on. I accept that life moves on. Life has changed considerably since 1948 and it is no longer necessary to do what the Act does and effectively duplicate and gold-plate wider employment legislation. It adds an unnecessary regulatory burden for businesses in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, many of which are small businesses. It is a particular burden for farm businesses that also operate in sectors outside those covered by the agricultural wages legislation and hence have to cope with dual regimes. Moreover, the agricultural wages legislation effectively prevents the payment of annual salaries and fair piece rates, preventing farm businesses from adopting modern, flexible practices. That can also be disadvantageous to the workers.

I will say a word or two about Amendment 21, which would remove from the Bill the agricultural wages committees. Most of the functions of those committees, as my noble friend Lord Caithness made clear, have lapsed in practice or have been replaced by wider legislation. As my noble friend put it, there are currently 15 committees in England and one in Wales and their only remaining active functions are to appoint members of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees and to report to the Secretary of State on their proceedings, which are now limited to holding an annual general meeting. I do not think that there is any case for retaining them.

It is for these reasons that we consider that the separate employment regime for agricultural workers is no longer appropriate. I am grateful again for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who pointed out that he was not going to get away with paying the lower wages that seemed to be suggested by the party opposite. People just would not accept them. The same could be said for the intervention from my noble friend Lord Eccles when he pointed out that the whole industry has changed too much in terms of the sophistication of the skills that are required for many workers to confine themselves to pay rates of the sort that we are talking about. We believe that by abolishing the agricultural wages board-

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 7:15 pm, 1st December 2010

Apologies if the Minister was moving on to this point, but do the Government have an impact assessment of the effect of the abolition of the legal minimum on wage rates, given that when each of the other wages boards was abolished the rate in that sector fell? Clearly, there are always some who are paid more than the minimum, but have the Government done that calculation? If so, I think that we should know.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not think that it is necessary for that work to have been done. As I said, we believe that with the abolition of the board the industry will be able to operate more flexibly, which would lead to more job creation and better opportunities. What the noble Lord and others have been asking us to do is describe what picture, as they put it, we see for the future. I believe that it is one where it is open to the industry to come together to set up its own system. Again, I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who said that the NFU ought to be out there seeking to put something together. What I did not hear from the representatives of Unite or Unite's predecessor, the Transport and General Workers' Union, was whether they were prepared to come together with the NFU and put something together. I do not see why the NFU, Unite and other industry representatives cannot come together and create their own advisory committee to discuss these matters. We do not think that it is necessarily a matter for the Government.

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If I could follow up on my noble friend's point, I thought that the Government had said that they would routinely carry out impact assessments in coming forward with legislation. I do not understand why they do not seem prepared to do so in this case.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, as I made clear, I do not think that it is necessary in this case to carry out an impact assessment. If it was necessary, we would do so. What I am saying is that, after the abolition of the wages board, it is open to the industry to look at its own arrangements. That is why I was grateful for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who said that the NFU could do this, but I do not see why the NFU cannot do it along with Unite and all the other representatives of the industry.

I appreciate that we have now spent an hour and a half discussing these matters. We will no doubt come back to this in due course. My noble friend Lord Maclennan said that there was still much time to discuss these matters. There certainly will be time, because noble Lords opposite wish to make sure that there is. We will discuss these matters further, therefore, but I have not heard anything yet this afternoon that would encourage me to say that there was a case for preserving the agricultural wages board or the agricultural wages committees. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank everybody who has taken part in an excellent and sensibly tempered debate with a huge amount of expertise on an important issue. It is curious that we are having this kind of debate on the Public Bodies Bill, which is not, on the face of it, about agricultural wages or, indeed, about many of the other things that we will debate in the course of its consideration in Committee, except that it is about everything. It is a curious Bill about everything and nothing but, if it leads to debates like this, the Committee will be doing the Government a service as well as the country generally.

I was particularly taken by the range of expertise in the debate. I do not want to reply to everybody, because it would take far too long, but I was slightly amused by what the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, said in her excellent contribution. It took me back to the great Liberal Governments of a hundred years ago, who had a great deal to do with the introduction of wages councils. However, times have changed and the solutions of a hundred years ago are not necessarily the solutions of today.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is one of a large number of speakers with ministerial experience, particularly in this area, who are distinguished Members of the House. He referred to the possible involvement of the Low Pay Unit as part of the solution to this conundrum. I am aware that such discussions are taking place in some areas. Whether they will come to anything, I do not know, but at least there is some time to pursue them and other discussions in the mean time.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, got me wondering about what I would do if I had my time again. I thought that I would perhaps have liked to have had a more outdoors life. If it were a choice of looking after sheep on a Scottish hillside or looking after the cattle of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, there would be no real choice: I would spend my life on the noble Duke's Scottish mountainside and probably enjoy myself more than I have done, although I have enjoyed a great deal, especially being able to stand and make speeches in your Lordships' House.

The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, raised an important question: do the Government have the facts about agricultural wages at the moment? How many agricultural workers are at the moment on the basic levels of pay set out by the agricultural wages board? I have not seen this information, but it must exist somewhere. How many of them are working for more enlightened employers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, or perhaps for employers who are exposed to a market that requires that they pay higher wages, or for a combination of both? We need that information before we can get to the bottom of how much the existing protection is required. Unite, among others, is saying that it has evidence of farmers telling their existing workers that if the protection is removed their wages will go down. I do not know whether this is tittle-tattle or hard evidence, but we need evidence to probe and investigate in the mean time.

Some noble Lords have argued that the legislation is not needed because they know of lots of people who are paid more than the level set out or, indeed, who employ people who are paid more than the level set out. I take that with a slight pinch of salt because you could apply that argument to the national minimum wage. Most people in this country are paid more than the national minimum wage, a lot of people are paid a great deal more than the national minimum wage and some people are paid astronomical sums-millions of pounds a year, according to what we read in the newspapers-but just because a lot of bankers are apparently paid these huge salaries is no argument for saying that the national minimum wage is not necessary or is not a good thing, because it protects a lot of other people who need protection. Again, I think that we need the kind of facts that the noble Viscount suggested that we should have. I hope that the Government will find it possible to dig out those facts, circulate them and write to all noble Lords who have taken part in today's debate.

Having said that and having said what an excellent House of Lords debate this has been, with propositions made, questions asked and debates enjoined, I should add that the other part of the equation that is traditionally necessary in the House of Lords is for the Government to listen to what has been said, think about it and respond to it. I thought that I detected in the Minister some softening and some willingness to continue to take part in the debate. I hope that that is the case. He said that we will discuss these issues again further. I hope that he did not mean that we will have to wait until Report, when we can have a set-piece battle with everybody lining up with their pitchforks or whatever people use nowadays instead of pitchforks. I hope that the discussion will take place in the several weeks that will be available to us before we get to Report.

Let us keep talking and let us have further discussions wherever we can. Let us bring the matter back on Report if we need to, but in the mean time let us hope to find a way through the issues that have been raised today and find some sort of compromise. Let us distinguish between closing down a quango, which the Government are adamant they want to do, perhaps saving quite a bit of the £250,000-plus that it costs to run, and keeping at least some of the functions, which might be carried out by somebody else. Even if that is not possible, let us understand what kind of negotiating system and procedure there might be in future between employers and employees at a national level and what sort of guarantee there might be that that will result in solutions that will stick rather than advice that can be ignored.

There is a great deal to be discussed further. The burden to business is being exaggerated a little, but with reform, modernisation and streamlining of the system it might be possible to reduce quite a few of those burdens without taking away the essential safeguards of the floors that exist to protect a group of people who, as many noble Lords have said, are more vulnerable than many other groups nowadays. The world has changed, so let us change the systems in response to that without taking away what is valuable.

I think that there is a general view around the Committee that we should not divide on this occasion. Indeed, in view of what I have said, it would be totally inappropriate for me to ask for the opinion of the Committee at this stage. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 20 withdrawn.

Amendment 21 not moved.

Amendment 22

Moved by Lord Rosser

22: Schedule 1, page 16, line 13, leave out "Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal."

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal organises compensation in connection with the nationalisation of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries. It hears appeals on valuations with a right of appeal ultimately to the Supreme Court. There is also provision for judicial review of the original compensation offer. The tribunal continues in existence but was described by the Council on Tribunals in 2006 as "rarely convened/moribund". On 1 November 2007, the tribunal came under the supervision of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, whose future also now appears somewhat less than secure. When he responds, will the Minister indicate the annual cost of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal, how many members there are of the tribunal and how many times, if any, it has met in each of the past three years? Will the Minister also indicate the list of duties and responsibilities of the arbitration tribunal and state which duties and responsibilities the Government consider no longer need to be undertaken at all and why, and which duties and responsibilities, if any, will continue to be undertaken, and to whom or to which body they will be transferred? Presumably, the Government must have come to some conclusions on these issues. Having taken into account which duties and responsibilities will be transferred elsewhere, and the cost of continuing to carry out any remaining duties and responsibilities, could the Minister say what the net saving will be from abolishing the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal? I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative 7:30 pm, 1st December 2010

We seem to concentrate only on whether something saves money, but the public are not interested only in saving money. They believe they are over-governed, that there is too much regulation and too much interference in their lives, and that there are too many bodies carrying out functions which most likely could be carried out better somewhere else. They want to see the system simplified, and I believe that this House should remember, when they are discussing these matters, that it is not only a matter of money; it is also a matter of making life less complicated.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

My Lords, I am pleased to move on to this series of amendments, and I will first turn to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal. This was set up under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 and related to the nationalised industries in aircraft manufacture and shipbuilding. These nationalised industries no longer exist and the tribunal is redundant. Similarly, the purpose of abolishing British Shipbuilders as a corporation is to simplify the administration of the funding and handling of British Shipbuilders' residual liabilities. These liabilities will be transferred directly to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which will provide a long-term solution to managing these liabilities.

The Government are committed to making compensation payments to former employees of British Shipbuilders, and I can give an indicative figure of the level of those compensation payments. They come to about £7 million a year. I hope that helps. The tribunal itself does not cost anything, as there are no standing costs and it does not have any employees. The compensation payments for former employees cover such injuries as mesothelioma, which were the result of their employment with British Shipbuilders. The payments are in line with the obligations that British Shipbuilding had to its employees.

British Shipbuilders Corporation was set up under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977. The corporation has no active trading operations and exists solely to meet its residual liabilities-litigation, insurance claims and other contractual matters- relating to its former employees. British Shipbuilders is effectively a shell company. In light of my assurances, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am not entirely sure whether the Minister was also replying to Amendment 24 as well as Amendment 22. Amendment 22 is about the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal, which is the one that hears appeals over valuation in relation to the nationalisation of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries. As far as I understood it, we were dealing with Amendment 22 separately. It seemed to me-though I am obviously prepared to stand corrected-as though some of the comments that the Minister made related to Amendment 24, which is about British Shipbuilders and any subsidiary of that company. I did raise a number of points-

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I did speak to Amendment 24 because my speaking notes represented a grouping which is not current, and I apologise to the noble Lord. Perhaps he will confine himself to my response in respect of the tribunal, because that is what he was speaking to. I apologise.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I was not entirely clear about what the Minister said. He did say that it was moribund, so do I take it that the answer to my question as to how many times it met in each of the past three years is that it has not met at all? Is it the case that, despite the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, no costs are being incurred by this body, because it is moribund and it has not met?

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I confirm that is the case. It does not cost anything, there is no standing cost and it does not have any employees.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Minister for that clear response and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 22 withdrawn.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.40 pm.